By 2007, the Internet had radically changed the social and economic landscape in the developed world. However, the Internet was (and still is) making slow progress in the developing world. We wanted to bring some of the advantages of the Internet to these populations, and had a hunch that the best way to go about it would be to use already-entrenched, familiar technologies.
Think a bit, and you can see why directly introducing the Internet would not work — in order to use the Internet, a rural villager needs to:
- Be literate (one billion people are illiterate).
- Read in a mainstream, international language (the web is not an interesting place if you only read Bemba language).
- Have working electricity.
- Have access to a computer.
- Learn how to use the computer.
- Have an Internet connection. (In Uganda, a basic connection can be several hundred dollars a month.)
- Learn how to use the Internet (in English).
Only then will good things start to happen.
There are many risks and unknowns that come along with introducing a novel technology-based service to a developing world population. We called ourselves Question Box, named after our first piece of hardware, and dove into India. While lean, iterative trials are common course for tech start-ups, when we started this was a radically maverick approach in the bureaucratic world of international development. We assumed that our assumptions regarding user behaviors and on-the-ground realities would be wrong. We were completely correct on that front. Getting Question Box closer to right has required frequent, responsive adjustments to our offering and strategy, as well as sacrificing several sacred cows along the way.
In our first Question Box trials, we built metal boxes with a green button on them and a hacked telephone inside. We stuck the Question Boxes up on walls in two rural Indian villages. Each Question Box was set to speed dial our operator, a young woman with a mobile phone and Internet connection in her house. Callers pushed the green button, connected to our Operator, and asked in local dialect any question they wanted. The Operator translated the question into English or Hindi, searched online, and then translated the answer back. In short, using a phone and a Box, we brought a form of the Internet to the village, even if the village honestly had no idea what the Internet was.
People loved the service — when it was working. The first thing we learned was that Indian landlines were awful. In one village, only five lines had been allocated to serve the entire population. As such, we needed to “borrow” a village leader’s rights to his landline, and then work with the phone bureaucracy in order to get his line installed at our service point. (Because landlines are unstable even in the cities, many Indian companies employ people whose only job is to deal with the government landline authority. We could have used one of those people.). This is a complete contrast to the United States for example where providers like Eatel landline phone service are easy to find.
So in our next series of pilots, we moved from landline to mobile, redesigning the Question Box to run on a $30 Nokia mobile phone that had been opened up and doctored. Borrowing from the language of mobile phones, our next Question Box had a green “Call” button and a red “Hang Up” one, as our original single-button interface was not intuitive. We also moved to graphical rather than text instructions on the Boxes.
Even though we offered the same Question Boxes and the same service, each community developed its own idea about what the Question Box was used for. For example, at one school, a dignitary at the inauguration of the Box asked, “What is the population of Pune?” From then on at that location, Question Box became Population Box. In more rural areas, Question Box was primarily used to check weather and crop market prices. Farmers rely on middlemen to bring their produce to market, and are dependent on the middlemen to offer fair prices. Using Question Box, they could learn what the real prices were, and hence have better success in negotiating. Universally, people wanted to know about train schedules and children wanted help with their homework.
In 2009, Grameen Foundation invited Question Box to Uganda. In Uganda, we faced a very different user population — widely dispersed, very rural, and lacking electrical infrastructure. In spite of having named ourselves “Question Box,” we jettisoned the physical Question Boxes. Instead, we made use of a network of field agents built up by Grameen Foundation. Each agent was already assigned to an area and equipped with a mobile phone.
We rode on their network, providing each agent with a bright yellow t-shirt emblazoned with a telephone and the tagline “Ask Me.” These 40 agents processed over 3,000 questions in only a few months. Some of these were the kind of trivia we in the developed world search for all the time (“Who is the richest man in the world?”), while others were essential questions relating to Ugandan agriculture (“What is the cause and control of the spotted leaf disease?”) Epidemics of banana wilt disease were killing off the population’s main starch staple. If infected plants were not removed and destroyed properly, villagers lost their core food supply. Our simple system saved many farmers’ livelihoods, and likely kept people from starving.
After Uganda, we came to a startling conclusion. Our goal is to make local language information easy and accessible in the developing world, but we’d been struggling with how to scale. After quite a lot of analysis and soul-searching, we realized that the best way to achieve that big goal was to get out of the way. There are hundreds of thousands of established community organizations around the world. They have local-language knowledge. They have sustainability, and community support. What they lack is easy accessibility. Villagers have to wait for a field agent to show up, or else their problems go unanswered. However, mobile phones are now ubiquitous. Given the proper set up, why couldn’t the villagers just call in? In short, with a little training and support, community organizations are the best way to deliver a knowledge service, not us. Our value-add is to build the tools to do so. To sustain ourselves, we plan to grow into a mixed-stream organization, relying on grants, institutional user fees, and custom consultancy.
While extremely painful from an organizational perspective, we shut down our active field operations, including the signature Question Boxes, and began building toolkits. Question Box has now evolved into a set of user manuals and desktop software that teaches local community organizations how to replicate what we have learned in the field. By stepping out of the way, and losing a great degree of control, we now have a strategy that can achieve the original, hugely scaled vision. This evolution required a loose hold on our own rules and a tight grip on our purpose — to make knowledge accessible to people in the developing world, on their terms.